Chris McDonnell: Switch on the light

Switch on the light

Chris McDonnell May 20th 2022, La Croix International

When it gets dark, we presume that somewhere in the room there is a switch that will give us light. Darkness is an inconvenience that can now be managed.

That is only a relatively recent occurrence. For many thousands of years, the onset of darkness severely limited any purposeful activity that is, until oil lamps and candles gave some modest light in a darkened home. We have found many examples of simple Roman pottery lamps that contained oil and a wick that gave light to a room enabling some useful activity to continue beyond sunset.

In a different context, we still have to manage the hours of darkness that we all experience now and then, hours that are short lived and passing or other periods that seem endless. We presume on the good times and get caught out when circumstances suddenly change. It wasn’t for nothing that John of the Cross spoke of ‘the dark night of the soul,’ for he spoke from experience. Our faith is a fragile thing, something that we often casually accept as part of the baggage of our lives, something we presume on until the oil that lights our lamp burns low and the flame begins to flicker and fade, and the shadows lengthen.

Faith, like the oil lamp, requires fuel if it is to continue to have life. In the hours of darkness, we require resources that we can draw on, resources that will see us through the difficult times, see us through to the dawn of a new day. Even prayer can seem empty when we reach that lonely place. When others say they will remember you in their prayers that is a lifeline offered in time of need and their prayer is yours.

How must faith be challenged in time of war, when all about is in a state of chaotic disorder, when pain and suffering are on the street corner and the wreckage of life lies in a disheveled heap on the pavement.    

Their story is told in words and images with each news bulletin we watch, with every sentence we frame. I wrote the words that follow a few days ago, after yet more graphic scenes from Ukraine.

A story told

Just wait a while longer

and see what happens,

       another news story

       reporting another killing.

Images of violence and

blackened burnt-out trucks

       lodged askew in congested roads

       facing the shattered tower block frontage

of desecrated, hollowed homes

draped with torn, wind-blown curtains.

       Media words reflect the scene

       as helmeted figures, with PRESS

printed in white across flak protected chests,

take risks of incoming metal fire or loose

flying shrapnel telling the now familiar

tale of pain in a flat monochrome of words.

Political moves are made that might raise

the threat of overwhelming response

as day passes through into night

and orange sun is replaced by orange

flash of exploding shell, killing a

family or two here, or over there

beyond the garden wall, a lost generation,

leaving only an infirm, stumbling grandma

huddled under a tattered blue shawl, searching

the ruined home with her wandering stick.

       Day lost in the ever-increasing cover

       of siren-taunted night and the distant

crying of a young child, hungry, cold

and scared, cuddled for comfort.

       Nursing unfamiliar weapons, a make-

       shift conscript runs, bent double, fires

then flattens on the soil-stoned ground,

seeking cover by the low concrete wall,

       gasping for air in the urgency

       of the moment of casual conflict.

Worn words exchanged round tables offer

little hope, as the written map changes

       colour and new lines are drawn

       while TV news describes the scene.

Covered in confusion, men at microphones

utter belligerent phrases, seeking to make

       their case for continued struggle

       to achieve a just solution.

Lost in a nightmare of discordant dreams

waiting for silence to return with daybreak.

       Maybe the coffee house will open or

       the supermarket raise its metal shutters

with a smile this Friday morning and cash tills

ring as trams replace tracked tanks.


May our prayers sustain their hours of darkness, bring relief when hope is almost gone. Peace of mind, of heart and soul, is a precious gift. May we take care of it and constantly renew the fuel that lights the flame of faith.

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